5 Ways to Increase Your Cognitive Flexibility

Modern routines can be a force for mental rigidity. Here's what the research tells us about how to improve our cognitive flexibility.

60 humans, 7 rhesus monkeys and 22 capuchin monkeys walk into a bar.

There, that got you interested.

But as entertaining as the punchline might be, I’m afraid this eclectic bunch didn’t walk into a bar. Instead, they were the subjects of a fascinating study published by a group of researchers at Georgia State University in 2019.

A less conventional opening line, but the punchline is still worth waiting for.

All 89 participants were taught a sequence of steps to unlock a reward. But after learning and repeating this sequence, the participants were then presented with an alternative: a seemingly obvious shortcut to the last step in the sequence.

Powered by a superior cognitive engine, the humans caught on quickest – right?

Wrong.

Some 70 percent of the monkeys immediately took the shortcut, compared to just 1 out of the 60 humans. Worse, even after being told explicitly by the researchers “Don’t be afraid to try something new”, half continued with the learned sequence. And worse still, even after watching a video that demonstrated the shortcut, 30% still plugged away with the original sequence.

What was going on?

The Pitfalls of Predictability

Well, that superior cognitive engine I alluded to earlier was in fact our downfall in this study.

Adept in a more unpredictable environment and less ingrained with the learned sequence, the monkeys were more willing to follow a new path immediately.

Conversely, having quickly established their rhythm and automaticity with the learned sequence, the humans were less able to take steps that defied their established path. They became, to coin an economics term, “path dependent”.

While the monkeys took longer to master the learned sequence, once presented with the alternative they demonstrated more of what is known as cognitive flexibility.

Cognitive flexibility can be described as the mental ability to adapt and innovate in the face of new, changing, or unexpected events. It encapsulates the idea of fluid intelligence and the ability to switch between thoughts and think about several things simultaneously.

The paradox for human beings is that the sophistication of our brains is also its worst enemy for cognitive flexibility. The nature in which our brains adapt and accommodate new routines makes it harder to quickly break the chain, to think and do things differently.

Predictability in our day-to-day lives only serves to increase this rigidity. Established routines become blinkers. Learned ways become the only way.

While structure and routine have serious advantages for long-term progression, we crush creativity and cognitive flexibility if we don’t design routines that also embrace the novel and unpredictable. Truth is, that’s why we see so many from the factory line of long-term knowledge work wind up creatively spent.

We need tools.

How to Increase Cognitive Flexibility

What, then, can be done to foster more cognitive flexibility in a world of routine?

The research suggests that 5 of the most effective things we can do to increase cognitive flexibility are:

  1. Doing the regular things differently
  2. Seeking out different people
  3. Embracing discovery
  4. Finding Goldilocks tasks
  5. Building a latticework of mental models

Let’s explore these ideas in more depth.

#1: Do the regular things differently

Explore different ways of performing familiar routines. The key here is the recognition that nothing is too small. Even subtle tweaks to our micro-routines, as absurd as they might seem, can help lightly stretch out a cognitively rigid brain.

Take this study. Participants that made sandwiches in a different order performed better on a subsequent cognitive flexibility test. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

Some examples of tweaks you can make to your daily routine:

  • Take a different route to and from work
  • Eat a different breakfast for a week
  • Brush your teeth in a different way
  • Prepare your meals in a different way
  • Review your inbox in a different order

The bottom line here is that we needn’t demolish the whole house to foster cognitive flexibility. Sometimes moving around the furniture is enough to help us think differently.

#2: Seek out different people

The second idea doesn’t require dramatic change either.

Talking with people we don’t normally engage with broadens our horizons, educates (sometimes) and forces us to consider problems and situations differently. Not to mention, increased social contact is associated with better long-term health outcomes.

One study published in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations appears to back this up. Participants with higher exposure to different cultural backgrounds demonstrated greater moral reasoning and cognitive flexibility.

Implementing this idea in practice can be as simple as reaching out for a chat with a colleague you don’t often talk with, calling a distant family member or an old friend, joining a club, or striking up conversation with a stranger. There is little excuse not to.

#3: Embrace discovery

But of course, if we really want to crank up the unpredictable, and in our turn our cognitive flexibility, we might expose ourselves to entirely different experiences.

First and foremost, that means embracing discovery. New work projects that develop a completely new set of skills. Travel to new places. New sights, new smells, and new sounds.

Novelty is food for the creative mind, and the science backs that up. While the confines of daily life can’t always permit radical discovery, technology breaks down some of the barriers of practicality. We know that now more than ever.

#4: Find Goldilocks tasks

We can also build cognitive flexibility through deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice isn’t simple repetition until perfection is reached. It relies on careful consideration of weaknesses and then targeted practice to improve upon those areas.

Deliberate practice doesn’t feel comfortable, and it’s not meant to. Instead, it exploits what psychologists call “desirable difficulties”. Like starting a new exercise routine for a different muscle group, it’s uncomfortable because it breaks the cycle of repeated practice that our bodies are already adapted to.

Building on this idea within our work environment, we can embrace deliberate practice in the form of Goldilocks tasks.

In short, Goldilocks tasks hit the sweet spot – the Goldilocks Zone – between comfort and discomfort. They are neither so easy as to facilitate comfort or boredom, nor so difficult as to demoralise. They stretch us without dissuading us.

The Goldilocks zone is not only a foundation of continuous improvement, but a spur to greater cognitive flexibility. The upshot: we should seek this sweet spot wherever we can in our day-to-day work.

#5: Build a latticework of mental models

Finally, we can support our actions with theory. By building a personal framework of mental models to guide our decisions, we can become more flexible problem solvers .

Put simply, mental models are theoretical tools that help us think better and simplify complexity. These include general thinking concepts like second-order thinking and inversion, as well as knowledge of cognitive biases that affect our decisions.

Equipped with a network of models, we can better frame problems and see ideas from a different perspective. But while mental models are a counterforce against thinking errors and cognitive rigidity, an extensive latticework of models can’t arrive overnight. It’s a process of knowledge accumulation and application. But it’s worth it.

Final Remarks

If you take one message from this article, let it be this: Ceaseless familiarity is the enemy of cognitive flexibility, and novelty is its friend.

That doesn’t mean being a different place every day or spending time with a different person every day. A stable environment can have a healthy effect on the formation of lifechanging habits.

It does, however, mean embracing different. From the subtle changes to our daily routines to the discovery of things we never knew, the novel is an adventure. And not only does that adventure help break the spell of cognitive rigidity, but it helps us to live a life more memorable.

So, go on, embrace your inner monkey. Think flexibly.

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